Despite getting an advantage with white pieces, Ian Nepomniachtchi could not find a way to convert it into victory as the Chinese Grandmaster Ding Liren defended well
The opening game of the match to determine the 17th World Champion in chess ended in a draw after 49 moves and nearly five hours of play.
The ceremonial first move in the first game of the championship was made by the Minister of Culture and Sports of Kazakhstan, Askhat Oralov, and FIDE President, Arkady Dvorkovich.
In a sideline of the Ruy Lopez opening, Ian Nepomniachtchi surprised his opponent and seized the initiative as White. The Chinese player spent significantly more time in the opening and was struggling as White had an edge both on the board and on the clock.
Nepomniachtchi missed a crucial opportunity to build up his advantage during the critical moments of the game, just before the first time control at move 40, where both players would get an extra hour. Despite his opponent having only a few minutes left on his clock, Nepomniachtchi did not manage to make the most of his opportunities and chose a plan that ultimately proved to be ineffective. As a result, Ian lost his edge on the board.
As the players reached move 40 and the first time control, the position was even. Following White’s 49th move, in an equal endgame, Nepomniachtchi and Ding decided to split a point.
During the press conference after the game, Ding Liren revealed that he felt “a bit depressed” before the game, suggesting that he felt he was “under too much pressure” to handle the match.
Ding also revealed that he decided to move from the hotel where he was staying and the match is taking place.
“Now I’m in the hotel I am more familiar with”, Ding said.
The Chinese player also confirmed that he “didn’t prepare anything because he was struggling with his feelings and emotions”.
Asked about his assessment of the game, Ding said: “It turned out that the opening phase I played well and was slightly better”.
During the day it also transpired that GM Richard Rapport is in Astana as Ding’s second. When asked about this, Ding said: “I like his creative playing style. Also, I can speak English with him and he can help me come across better and improve my speaking. We also have many things in common – we like the music of the 1980s.”
Ian Nepomniachtchi was not happy about the way he proceeded after the opening but was overall satisfied with his performance in the first game.
The second game of the World Chess Championship match will take place on Monday, 10th April, at 3 PM local time in Astana.
Here follows a closer look at the first game of the match in Astana.
Playing with the white pieces Ian Nepomniachtchi opened with 1.e4. Ding Liren is known for playing a wide array of openings, but in this case, he responded with the predictable and solid 1...e5, and the opponents went for the Ruy Lopez. The first interesting moment came on move six when Nepomniachtchi surprised Ding with the Deferred exchange variation – 6.Bxc6.
This is a known move, but Nepomniachtchi has not played it before. As Vishy Anand noted, this move was once considered as a way to avoid theory, but in the meantime, it may have also become theoretical.
6…dxc6 7.Re1 “A sideline within a sideline” as noted by GM Anish Giri. This move was not played at the highest level. This is the first moment where Ding paused to think longer.
After following a beaten track for a while Ding introduced a novelty 11…Bg4, developing the c8-bishop, which is hardly better than popular 11…Ne6. Nepo wisely avoided an exchange by 12.Nd4, and both players started concentrating their pieces in the centre and soon reached the second important position.
Ian just played 14.Nf5. At first glance, taking on f5 seems dangerous for Black. For example, 14…Bxf5 15.exf5 Re8 16.f6, but in reality, it was the shortest way to equality. Indeed, after 16…Bf8 17.Qg3 g6 18.Bxc7 Qd2! Black has sufficient counterplay.
Ding opted for 14…Ne6, but after 15.Nxe7 Qxe7 White got a long-lasting initiative which Ian had a chance to build up several moves down the road.
Here an immediate 21.f4 looks quite promising, but Ian preferred a more reserved 21.a3 and continued with slow maneuvering. This approach also worked for Nepo as having just 20 minutes on the clock, Ding made a serious inaccuracy weakening his pawn formation on the queenside and found himself in quite an unpleasant position.
With 27.Qf4 White built a dangerous battery along the h2-b8 diagonal. “An Ian move”, as described by GM Anish Giri, who noted that such threats with queen infiltrations are a favourite move for Nepomniachtchi played when he feels comfortable and senses his chances. White’s advantage is becoming tangible now.
27…b5 was played by Ding, hoping for some counterplay with a push on the queenside. With 13 minutes on the clock, Ding now had one minute per move. At the same time, the position was in the area of high-value mistakes per move. After 28.Qb8 Kh7 the opponents reached arguably the critical position of the entire game.
Ian played 29.Bd6 after 14 and a half minutes of thinking. After more natural 29.Bc7 Ne6 30.Bxa5 Qd7 31.Bc3 Qd1 32.Nf4 (32.Ng3 followed by 33.Nf5 is another interesting option) 32...Nxf4 33.Qxf4 Qd7 White has some chances to convert his extra pawn.
29….Qd7 Ding responded almost immediately and after 30.Ng3 30…Ne6 31.f4? weakening his e4 pawn Black equalized with 31…h5.
Ding committed one more inaccuracy in his time trouble but without serious consequences. With just 30 seconds on the clock, he safely reached the first time control and got an extra hour. After making his 40th move Ding walked away leaving Nepo to think and assess what just happened. White’s advantage has faded away completely.
Despite the position being equal, neither side wanted to be the first to make a draw offer, so they continued playing, looking for a move repetition.
Eventually, White won a pawn but Black quickly restored material equality, and after just under five hours of play, the game ended in a draw.
Text: Milan Dinic
Photo: Stev Bonhage
Official website: worldchampionship.fide.com/
About the match
The 2023 FIDE World Chess Championship match between Grandmasters Ding Liren and Ian Nepomniachtchi takes place from 7th April to 1st May 2023 in Astana, Kazakhstan.
The match will consist of 14 games, followed by a rapid/blitz tiebreak in case of a tie.
The time control for the standard games is 120 minutes for the first 40 moves, followed by 60 minutes for the next 20 moves, and then 15 minutes for the rest of the game, with an increment of 30 seconds per move starting from move 61.
The first player to reach 7,5 points in the 14 games will win the match. If it’s a tie, the two go to tiebreaks.
The prize fund for the match is two million euros, with the reward being split 60:40 between the winner and the runner-up.
The main Partner of the match is Freedom Holding.